Around Europe: MILAN (LOOKING FOR MARIA CALLAS)

By A.G.Billig
In Escapes
Nov 24th, 2014
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Maria Callas

Maria Callas

In 1951, on opening night in December, Maria Callas  made her official debut at La Scala in Verdi’s “I vespri siciliani’. She was still as contemporaries described her, “monstrously fat”. Throughout the decade, Scala theatre became her artistic home and witnessed her complete metamorphosis. The “monster” lost nearly 36 pounds, turning into the gorgeous woman who, in 1957,  captured Aristotle Onassis’ heart.  My parents are huge fans of the Greek diva so naturally, La Scala was one of the places I wanted to see in Milano. I was surprised to see that the outside architecture of the building didn’t raise up to its reputation. The building is plain, simple, even austere, placed on a narrow street in the vicinity of the magnificent Milano Dome. But this is Milano, a surprising city where modern and ancient, frivolity and spirituality interwind. The number of churches and monasteries outnumber that of fashion design boutiques attracting pilgrims from all over the world.

           Sforzesco Castle, one of the largest citadels in Europe, is a good place to start exploring the city. It was built in the 15th century by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, on the remains of a 14th-century fortification and it now houses several of the city’s museums and art collections. Not least spectacular are the castle’s gardens. Ancient and leafy trees are shadowing the wide, winding,  alleys of white. Large stretches of green grass  lure me to lie down and enjoy the warm September sun. A small pond, adorned with water lilies, is home to a family of small turtles and several fish species. Now and then, my gaze follows a brave green lizard venturing out of the shadow into the sunlight. Brave are also the two young Romanians wearing XVI century milanese noblemen costumes. They left their hometown one year ago and  came to Italy to make a buck. For now, by putting on these funny outfits every day and making photographs with the visiting tourists. Same as monkeys a the seaside. Or models. Have it your way!

Sforzesco Gardens

Sforzesco Gardens

         Despite modern architecture and skyscrapers, Milan Cathedral stays, by far, the city’s most impressive building. It domniates the heart of the historical city with its arches and spiers that seem made of lace. Go inside – the entrance is free and descend into the crypt where the relics of Saint Charles Borromeo lie. The decor and atmosphere are intriguing and will set in motion a vivid imagination. A small red light bulb in the dome above the apse marks the spot where one of the nails reputedly from the Crucifixion of Christ has been placed. The Holy Nail is retrieved and exposed to the public every year, during a celebration known as the Rite of the Nivola.  Right next to the Cathedral are the renown Vittorio Emmanuelle galleries, an genuine architectonic piece of jewellery.

           The area around “Porta Garibaldi” is the place to have a bite of the modern Milan. Skyscrapers gather around a lovely plaza, with fountains, coffee shops and places for rest and grab a sandwich. Early in the morning, local artisans are displaying their goodies, from leather bags to belts, clothes and bio food. A few blocks further, on Corso Garibaldi, there is a small gelateria, with some of the best ice-cream in town, and also a couple of pubs packed with young people willing to have a good time even on a Monday evening.

            Unico Milano, the highest Michelin star placed in Europe (at the 20th floor of the WJC Tower at Portello area) offers one of the best views of Milan skyline as well as delicious micro-cuisine plates (vegetarian, fish meat) at a decent price – 30 Euros for a three course menu, in a  sophisticated and refined decor. This is the place to wear for the first time a brand new Valentino dress during a romantic candlelight dinner.

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Not to miss: a ride with the vintage tram, a visit to Latteriagricola – the place where you can eat the best ice-cream in the Milan area.

A.G. Billig travelled by coach around Europe for three weeks, visiting twelve of its most beautiful cities, as part of a special Eurolines project. You can read more about it, here.

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